Recruit beats adversity en route to Manhattan
He glides. That's the first thing you notice when you call up the video clip. Alex Etherington seems to hang for an eternity.
It's as if he's being pulled along on a tiny wire, an angel in some community theater Christmas production. Here's this skinny kid from Indiana floating to the rim like Dr. J. Gravity waits him out. It's poetry — the kind of grace you could set to music.
It's so graceful, in fact, that you almost don't pay attention to the defender chasing him, or that the kid is pushing Alex as he goes up for the breakaway dunk. He's just there, suddenly, the wrong obstacle at exactly the wrong time.
In a flash, the grace descends into horror, a grand piano hurtling down a flight of steps. Etherington descends torso first. The head hits the floor hard, then recoils sickly, then hits again. The body goes limp.
"I remember going up. I don't ever remember him pushing me," Etherington, the first Kansas State basketball recruit of the Bruce Weber Era, says now. "I remember waking up and saying, 'I can't move.'"
The 6-foot-5 forward had cracked his skull. There was bleeding in the brain. He'd suffered a concussion and found himself temporarily paralyzed. Time stopped.
"I was at the other end of the gym," recalls Brett Etherington, Alex's father. "And there happened to be a local chiropractor sitting in the front row (near) right where he landed. He said, 'This is very serious.'
"He went unconscious for about 10 seconds. His eyes went in the back of his head and (he said) that he couldn't feel anything. And then, all of a sudden, it went from, 'Can he get back in this game?' to (me being) concerned he was paralyzed."
Fortunately for Alex, the sensation returned to his limbs and the bleeding wasn't severe. You can see "The Fall" — which occurred on Feb. 26, 2011, the last game of Etherington's sophomore season at Hamilton Heights High in Arcadia, Ind. — for yourself. It's on YouTube; as of Wednesday morning, the video had been viewed more than 74,000 times. Alex has clicked on it himself, just to try to figure out what the heck happened.
"I watch it — it doesn't bother me, really," Etherington says. "At first, it was hard to watch. Now it's over with and it doesn't bother me anymore."
Hindsight wouldn't call "The Fall" a blessing. Not in a million years. But it did have a lot to do with where we are now, with why a 17-year-old who grew up in the shadow of Purdue, Indiana and Butler is heading to Manhattan, Kan.
"The Fall" cost Alex the rest of his sophomore season and, more important, a summer of AAU exposure. In an effort to get back in a hurry, Etherington rushed his rehabilitation. When he took the court in July 2011, he was a sloppy mess. Alex hadn't played in ages. He was thinking instead of reacting. His timing was off. His conditioning had slacked. It showed.
"It was mentally frustrating," Brett says. "There were a lot of coaches that would sit there and kind of get up and walk away. He maybe came back too soon and (potential college) coaches got maybe the wrong idea of what his game was."
They'd get a better, truer idea in the months to follow. The timing returned. So did the stamina. And the hops. Etherington, whose brother, Austin, just completed his freshman season at Indiana, averaged 22.1 points per game as a high school junior.
New Mexico was interested. Ditto for Xavier, Boston College and Saint Joseph's. Scout.com rated Alex the sixth-best small forward prospect in the state; the top five have already committed to programs either within the Big Ten or to Notre Dame.
Those coaches who'd walked away a few months earlier started to come back. K-State came late — but with force — this spring, sending handwritten notes pretty much every day. When Alex and Brett took an unofficial visit, Wildcats athletic director John Currie sat them down and talked shop for almost an hour.
"It was incredible," says Brett, a former Butler basketball player who was once recruited by Weber when the latter was an assistant at Purdue. "I played college ball with Thad Matta; he and I were teammates. So you kind of get to know, you kind of get a feel for who can really recruit."
At the Best Buy Classic in Chicago late last month, Alex continued to turn heads. There, his Indiana Elite South AAU team hung tough with the favored Florida Rams, a squad that featured Kansas recruit Brannen Greene. Greene reportedly netted 20 points; Alex had 19. Other than occasional headaches, it's almost as if "The Fall" never happened. Almost.
"I won't go for a two-handed dunk off one leg any more," Alex says.
"And it just hasn't affected his aggressiveness," Brett adds. "I think that's what surprised people the most.
"He was always looking to get out of Austin's shadow and get a little further away. He missed a lot of last summer, so I know he missed out on getting (looks from) a lot of local schools — all of them got commitments early. He just wanted to go out and make his own name and prove to everyone (in Indiana) that they missed out a great player.
"His upside is a little better than Austin's. He's considerably more athletic, maybe like a Dan Majerle. (Kansas State assistant Chris) Lowery said, 'You got to see him, we've got Dan Majerle here.' You just won't believe the way he can get off the floor."
The old glide is back. And the more he plays, the more Alex Etherington keeps rising.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org